Sermon - 29th December 2013
The problem of evil
Scripture - Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Christmas Day was just four days ago, and among the celebrations with gifts, food and the company of our loved ones, we may have taken some time to reflect on the Christmas story, our modern version of which stems from a mixing the accounts contained in two Gospels – Matthew and Luke. Many of us, as young children, may have taken part in nativity plays, where the Christmas story, drawn from both Gospels plays itself out on the stage, usually finishing with a beautiful scene of the Holy Family, the Angel Gabriel, the Shepherds and the Wise Men and their three gifts.
In church, we try to get it right and remember the Wise Men two weeks after Christmas, at Epiphany; however, between Christmas and Epiphany, we remember an event which the Church calls “Holy Innocents”, which according to St Matthew’s Gospel, as heard read to us today, should come after Epiphany! Nevertheless, here we are today reflecting on a very dark episode in the Christmas story, one which many will overlook, and certainly not seen in school Nativity plays.
The Birth Narrative in St Luke’s Gospel with the Angel Gabriel, the visit to Elizabeth, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the stable and the shepherds is largely positive and much of this narrative is written with Mary, Jesus’ mother, very much in the centre. Compare this with the Birth Narrative in St Matthew’s Gospel, which is much shorter and more from Joseph’s perspective: the assurance he received in a dream to marry Mary, despite the pregnancy, the further two dreams in which Joseph takes the Holy Family into and return from exile. Added into this is the experience of the Wise Men or Magi, who themselves are warned in dream. The account in Matthew is much darker. Also, Matthew points out to his readers that certain things in his narration are the fulfilment of prophecy from many centuries before Jesus’ birth.
In our experience of Nativity plays, King Herod is the baddie. Let us expand on this: Herod, or Herod the Great, was not a Jew. He was from Idumea, south of Judea. His reign over his kingdom was brought about at the same time as the Roman conquest of Judea in 37 BCE. Secular historians of the time describe Herod as a king who never felt secure: he had a secret-police of sorts; he had many close to him killed: one wife, his mother, his brothers and several sons. He was a harsh king who imposed very heavy taxes on his people. We know that he was highly suspicious of the Wise Men or Magi when they came to him first, before going on to Bethlehem.
And so we set the scene: a king, Herod, who was paranoid and very afraid of potential rivals; and, the Holy Family, Jesus, whose birth was foretold by prophets. Into this mix comes this terrible event, in which innocent children under 2 years old are slaughtered.
We do not know how long the Holy Family stayed in Bethlehem, nor how long after the birth did the Magi visit Herod and then come to Bethlehem. Clearly, the 2 years have some significance. The Gospel is silent on the number of children who were killed; however, given the smaller population in the ancient world, and that Bethlehem was known to be a village, we are probably talking about tens of children; nevertheless, the act was indeed no less brutal.
God’s hand through Joseph’s dream was at work, and the Holy Family fled as refugees into Egypt, and we are told towards the end of the Gospel reading that only after Herod’s death – which historians tells us was in 4 BCE – did the Holy Family return home to Nazareth. There are parallels between the story of Moses in the book of Exodus and today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel; and, the theme of the Holy Family as refugees is a compelling one; however, I would like to look more closely at the massacre of these children.
In verse 18, we heard: “A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for they are dead.” Ramah is another name for that area of Judea. Rachel was Jacob’s second and most beloved wife and is said to be buried near Bethlehem. Her name represents the mothers of the massacred children.
We cannot imagine what it must have been like for those mothers, those parents and those families, into whose lives this massacre came and changed them forever. What must they have felt? They had done nothing wrong. Their children certainly had done nothing wrong, yet they were slaughtered by a brutal, paranoid, tyrannical king.
We have a saying: not to rub salt into the wound, meaning to make the pain worse. But let us contextualise those words from verse 18 which were first written by the prophet Jeremiah some 600 years previously.
How must those mothers and families have felt when they heard that the massacre of their children had been foretold? What thoughts and feelings must have gone through them? Why had God singled out their children in their town in their time to fulfil the prophecy? Indeed, the words of Jeremiah are true: “She refuses to be comforted.”
Now I want to put today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah alongside today’s Gospel reading… “I will tell of the Lord’s unfailing love… Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him… He has richly blessed the people of Israel… Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood… The [Lord] saved them all from their suffering… Rachel is crying for her children; she refuses to be comforted for they are dead.”
Putting these readings side-by-side unsettles us. When deep emotions caused in the face of trauma of others are evoked, that force is a powerful one and stirs our deep feelings and the difficult, awkward unanswered – perhaps, even, unanswerable – questions come to the surface.
What was God playing at, when, as it seems, he marked those Bethlehem children for death in a prophecy made 600 years previously? Why did God save his own Son, Jesus, and yet bring agony to many, many families, for what seems all the for the sake of making a theological point?
Many churches will set time aside at this time of year to mark Holy Innocents, inviting those who have lost children prenatally or in their infancy.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have sense against injustice within us, and from time to time in all us, that sense against injustice is brought to the fore, either through the seemingly inexplicable happenings of circumstance, or the plain horror of what could only be describe as “evil”.
Herod’s massacre – whether or not we accept Jeremiah’s prophecy – was an evil act, born out of the paranoia, fear and malevolence of a man who abused his power as a king. And similar can be said of “evil acts” on the receiving end of which we have found ourselves: homophobic or transgendered hatred; being forced out of families, churches, jobs and native countries just because we are LGB or T; and the everyday violence of greed (individual and corporate), resulting in theft, robbery, burglary and poverty.
“Evil” is a harsh word, one we might reserve for serial murderers, sex attackers, or tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe, Hussein and Herod. Maybe “evil” is better defined as the opposite of love: instead of building someone up, tearing them down.
But let us return to the centre of pain in our Gospel reading: the pain of the mothers whose children were slaughtered. We may never experience that level of evil, but we will still experience a level of injustice within us with rails against God in despair and complete failure to understand why these things have happened to us.
And then, there are the things in our lives, which are not born of evil or malevolence, but nevertheless cause us the same level of pain and despair: a loved one struck down with a certain disease… Why him? Why her? They are such a good and loving person and yet there are so many wicked people out there in good health! And inexplicable loss… of a job, of a friendship or relationship, or of property… why did I have to lose out? I am good person.
And then there’s the pain of emptiness and despair, for those who strive and yet never seem to find… the couple longing to conceive and have children, those looking for asylum, looking for a relationship, looking for work… why is it that it seems so easy for others, yet impossible for me?
You might not feel comfortable right now, but yet we can take a step back from the personal and ask wider questions which evoke the same feelings within us… Why is there suffering in the world? Why is there evil in the world? Why doesn’t God ‘do something’?
I wish I could stand here and answer your questions, but I cannot. These questions are simply too big.
In the Old Testament, you can find the book of Job – itself an exploration of the problem of evil. Terrible things happened to Job, including the loss of all of his family except his wife, his property and his health, yet he refused to curse God. Eventually, God speaks to Job, but instead of answering any of his questions, God asks Job even bigger questions. Job learns that God is higher and above us.
The prophet Isaiah also wrote down the following: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts.”
I am not trying to dismiss our BIG questions, but I do think we do need to acknowledge our place in the created order. We are not at the top of the tree. We are not the Creator: we are the created. We cannot understand everything. And here is the great mystery: our God, the Creator, became the created. And that miracle happened at Christmas. Our Creator God became human in the baby Jesus. And just like we are angered by injustice, so was Jesus: He spoke out against the hypocritical authorities; He wept bitterly when his friend Lazarus died. Each of the four Gospels is filled with stories of how Jesus drew alongside individuals in their place and time of need.
I would like to think that as Jesus walked around Judea during his ministry, that he would have returned to Bethlehem, and he would have met the mothers whose children were massacred by Herod, and that by drawing alongside them for a time, that they experienced some comfort.
You may have had the experience yourself, as I have, of being with someone in pain, and all that is required is to be alongside them: words are unnecessary. This in itself is act of being Christ-like. This is what Jesus did, and as His followers, we are called to be like Him: we are now His hands to do His work, His feet to go where He would have us go, His voice to speak His words to a world in pain.
And so, in the depth of pain, either our own or that of another, remember that Jesus understands: He became human; from the manger at Christmas to the Cross of Easter, He is one of us; He is in it with us. Jesus is in it with us. Let us reflect on that most profound mystery for a moment.
Jesus is in it with us… He is in it with us.